PHOENIX – With the Grizzlies saddled with slow starts in their previous two games, Memphis’ pacesetter – soaring star Ja Morant – spoke up.
“The last two games we didn’t have our fire. I voiced it to the team,” Morant said after the Grizzlies shut down the Suns 125-100 at Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix on Friday night. “We knew that wasn’t Grizzlies basketball. Tonight, we came out with that fire and you see what happened.”
The happening was Memphis’ seventh wire-to-wire victory, the most by far by any team this season. It assured the Grizzlies (20-11) of a share of first place in the Western Conference when they make their Christmas Day debut on national television on Sunday.
For the first time all season, Memphis played with all of the team’s regular starters: Ja Morant, Steven Adams, Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks. Every starter has missed games. The Next-Gen’s starters were back in full force with the return of Bane, who scored 17 points in 24 minutes.
“I think everybody thinks it feels good (to have Bane back),” said Morant. “We just won by 30 against a good Phoenix team. We know what he brings to the table. He helps with floor spacing. It looked good so far.”
Bane scored six points in the Grizzlies’ 39-point first quarter, which ended with Memphis up by 19 points after scoring the first eight.
“Just credit to our guys,” Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins said. “Great mentality in the game but it is a product of the last two days. The offensive execution was really good, but it really started with our defense.”
Up by 21 points at the half, Memphis snuffed out any thoughts Phoenix had of getting back into the game in the third quarter.
“We were able to come out on a run and win that third quarter (38-31),” Jenkins said. “It was just the defensive mentality that got our team going and it sparked our offense.”
Suns head coach Monty Williams pointed to Memphis’ 39-point first quarter and 38-point third quarter, counting Memphis with Boston and other teams “that are big and physical and want to put their hands on us. We don’t have the pre-game edge that we’ve had around here. We got to get back to chasing something and right now I feel like the prey and I don’t like that feeling.”
Memphis’ starters delivered: Morant, 12 points, 11 assists, five rebounds; Bane, 17 points, two assists, three rebounds; Steven Adams, six points, 11 rebounds, two assists; Dillon Brooks, 16 points, two rebounds; Jaren Jackson Jr., 24 points, 10 rebounds, one assist.
The second unit, sparked by Brandon Clarke (24 points, 10 rebounds in 21 minutes) would not let Phoenix gain any significant ground. It was a homecoming for Clarke, who played for Phoenix’s Desert Vista High School.
“I don’t know, just out there being me,” said Clarke of why he played so well. “Just trying to be active, trying to do whatever I can do. Free throws fell today, put in like a bunch of work on those, so that feels good to see.”
Clarke treated his hometown fans to a spectacular one-hand slam from an equally impressive left-handed pass by Jackson.
“He came out ready to play at a high level for us,” Morant said. “His touch around the rim helps us a lot. He has a soft floater that he knocks down at a high level.”
Never a team that lacked confidence, the fires got stoked even more this week after Morant’s on-one-on nationally-televised interview with Malika Andrews, host of “NBA Today.” Invited to survey the league and pinpoint a team to be concerned about, Morant said the Celtics. Asked about the Western Conference, Morant said, “I’m fine in the West.”
With some taking the comment as bulletin-board material for other teams, Jackson was asked about Morant’s observation during an interview shown on the telecast of the Phoenix game. Jackson said, “We stand with that,” amplifying that essentially it is about the Grizzlies playing to the standard they set for themselves.
Memphis’ primetime, Christmas Day matchup against the Golden State Warriors, who will not have the star power and shooting artistry of All-Star Stephen Curry, is set to tip off at 7:30 p.m. CDT on ESPN. It will be the first meeting of the year between the two teams.